Dysmenorrhea

A whole-body approach to menstrual pain

Dysmenorrhea

Dysmenorrhea or painful periods, is one of the most common problems that women face, affecting more than 50 percent of those who mensturate.

Dysmenorrhea, or “painful periods,” is one of the most common problems that women face, affecting more than 50 percent of those who menstruate.

The most common treatment for menstrual pain is the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and aspirin. Although these drugs can be effective for many women at reducing pain, they come with a number of side effects. This is why more and more women are looking for safe and effective natural treatments to help relieve painful periods.

Diet and nutrition

A healthy diet is essential in the treatment of dysmenorrhea. Many women experience relief from menstrual cramps just by switching to healthier nutritional habits. Firstly, it is important to decrease the intake of foods that may be contributing to the actual condition.

Reduce omega-6 fatty acids
In the case of dysmenorrhea, eliminating foods high in arachidonic acid is often the key to dealing with the pain. Arachidonic acid is derived from omega-6 fatty acids and is used to synthesize pro-inflammatory prostaglandins (specifically PGE2), which increase inflammation within the body.

Menstrual pain is believed to be associated with an elevated level of PGE2 prostaglandins, especially within the uterine wall. Animal products such as dairy, pork, beef, chicken, turkey, and lamb are all high in arachidonic acid, so try to limit intake of these foods, especially around the time of menstruation.

Increase omega-3 fatty acids
Another way to decrease PGE2 prostaglandins is by increasing intake of foods high in omega-3 such as salmon, sardines, tuna, flaxseeds, and pumpkin seeds. Omega-3 fatty acids are used to synthesize “good” prostaglandins (PGE1 and PGE3), which are anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic.

A fish oil supplement high in omega-3 would be a good addition along with dietary changes to decrease menstrual pain. Studies have found that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids can be effective in alleviating symptoms of dysmenorrhea such as abdominal pain and low back pain.

Increase magnesium
An important mineral, magnesium has also been shown to be effective in reducing menstrual pain. This is most likely due to its ability to act as a muscle relaxant, thereby relieving the spasms of the uterine muscles which can lead to menstrual cramps.

Traditional Chinese medicine

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), menstrual pain is explained in terms of the proper flow and quantity of qi (energy) and blood. In order to determine the underlying cause, specific questions must be answered as to the timing, location, and character of the pain—whether or not it is aggravated or relieved by heat, cold, and pressure—as well as the quality and quantity of the menstrual blood itself.

Keeping in mind that each person is unique in terms of underlying cause, most often menstrual pain can be due to stagnation of qi or blood in the body, so the goal of treatment is to relieve stagnation and promote their smooth flow. This can be done through the use of Chinese herbal formulas as well as acupuncture. Check with your health care practitioner for the herbal formulas that will work best for you.

Acupuncture
Acupuncture treatments involve inserting small needles into the skin at certain points, known as energy meridians, in order to relieve pain. From a Western perspective, acupuncture stimulates the release of various chemicals such as endorphins that act as natural painkillers, and therefore it is effective in menstrual pain management.

Homeopathy

Studies have shown that homeopathy can be an effective treatment for relieving painful periods; however, it is essential to find the homeopathic remedy whose description most closely matches your overall symptom picture. A homeopath or naturopathic doctor can help you find the best remedy for you. Here are a couple of useful remedies they may consider.

Sepia
Indications for this remedy include painful, late, or suppressed menstruation, sometimes with a feeling that the pelvic floor is weak or as if the uterus is sagging. The woman may feel irritable and sad, losing interest temporarily in marital and family interactions and wanting to be left alone.

Magnesia phosphoric
Painful cramps and pain in the pelvic region that are relieved by pressure and warmth often respond to this remedy. Pain is usually worse from cold and worse on the right side of the body.

Herbal medicine

Traditionally, many herbs have been used to treat dysmenorrhea.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Ginger is best known for its anti-inflammatory effects. Studies have shown that when taken during the first three days of menses, ginger was as effective as ibuprofen in relieving menstrual pain. Dysmenorrhea can also be associated with nausea and vomiting, and ginger also works to reduce these symptoms.

Stress reduction

Studies have found a significant association between stress and the incidence of dysmenorrhea. One in particular found that the risk of dysmenorrhea was more than twice as great among women with high stress compared with low stress in the preceding menstrual cycle.

It has been proposed that stress-related hormones such as cortisol can increase the production of inflammatory prostaglandins within the uterine wall, which can then lead to the development of symptoms of dysmenorrhea.

Stress-reduction techniques such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing can be beneficial in not only dealing with menstrual pain itself but also decreasing the likelihood of it occurring during the next cycle.

For many women, menstrual pain can be effectively managed through the use of safe, non-drug alternatives. Simple dietary changes, supplementation with specific nutrients and/or herbs, and acupuncture can often bring about relief during this painful time of the month.


Signs and symptoms of dysmenorrhea

Dysmenorrhea pain may start a few hours, or even a few days, before or at the onset of menses. It tends to be most intense during the first couple of days and tapers off toward the end of the period. Symptoms may include

  • abdominal cramps
  • back pain
  • fatigue
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • diarrhea/constipation
  • hypersensitivity to sound, light, smell, and touch

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